The Survival of Orphan Erica

Columban Fr. Shay Cullen lives and works in the Philippines.
February 27, 2014

Columban Fr. Shay Cullen writes about his work in Tacloban, Leyte, following the devastating typhoon:

I arrived to give group therapy to the many survivors in the squalid evacuation camps to cope better with the tragedy and great loss they have suffered because of typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda). But I went first to find the missing orphans. Here is the story of one of them.

We found Erica in a white canvas tent with her auntie and uncle, about three hundred meters from where her parents’ house once stood. Her home was half a kilometer from the shore line. On the night of November 7, she, her parents and two brothers slept together in the small room of her parents as the rain was lashing down and the wind was rising. They woke after an hour. “This is going to be a strong storm, everyone stay close tonight,” her father told them. By 2 am, the family of five huddled together and embraced each other. It was to be their last embrace.

Soon, a great wave of water suddenly burst into their little bungalow house, smashing through the windows, collapsing the door and quickly filled the house. They cried out for help and were trying to swim to stay above the water. Erica’s father shouted to them to cling and climb into the ceiling, but it was too late. The water engulfed them so quickly, and there was no escape.

Then the roof was torn off like a scrap of paper ripped from a notebook and disappeared in an instant into the dark sky. They were trying to swim and float on the rising water, and a tree came rushing by and was held momentarily by the remaining wall of their little house.

“Grab the branches, hold the branch,” her father shouted above the deafening noise of the wind. Her father and mother and two brothers caught the branches, but Erica could not reach them, she was clinging to the remains of the rafters, the water was up her neck. Her mother saw they were being separated and cried out in the storm, ” Erica, we love you, we care for you, survive, survive.”

Then they were swept away, and Erica was also carried off with the surging waters. They disappeared into the darkness and that was the last Erica ever saw of them. She was carried on the wave and bumped into a coconut tree. She grabbed it, wrapped her arms around it and clung on for dear life.

After a long while, the powerful wave began to lose its power and strength and receded. “I prayed to God to save me, save my family, to please to let me live,” she said. She clung on the tree until the waters fully retreated. Exhausted and trembling in shock, she fell to the ground. Erica survived. Her parents and two brothers were lost. Months later, she still has nightmares. “I cannot sleep so well, I have bad dreams that I am drowning, I miss my family,” tears welled in her eyes and she grew silent.

Then after a while, we all walked slowly through the widespread destruction and ruins of the entire village to where her little house once stood. It was just a heap of rubble, half of a block wall remained. There was a broken mirror, a hairbrush, a crumbled photo in the ruins. Outside was a little white passenger van, its front window and roof crushed by a fallen tree. Her father once drove it for a livelihood. The landscape all around was one of utter destruction. Not a house was left standing.

Over two hundred people died in that village, and more are missing. Their bodies were never found.

Back in the tent that is now her home, Erica said that she is thankful to be alive and she had relatives who are caring for her. “I miss seeing my parents and brothers, I don’t know where they are, but wherever they are, I pray for them to God, they are in God’s hands now.”

Asked about her future, “I have a hope to study and become a teacher, thank you for listening to my story.” She seemed a little happier than when we first arrived.